Balkan Opportunities

By Lueking, F. Dean | The Christian Century, February 3, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Balkan Opportunities

Lueking, F. Dean, The Christian Century

When Westerners think about the Balkan peninsula, they think of conflict. After all, the area that includes Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Kosovo has a history of over nine centuries of complicated rivalries that have often exploded into bloody entanglements. Even historians despair of sorting out the bitter patterns of conquest and reconquest, peace and war. And each incident is tangled in layers of religious, ethnic, cultural and clan antagonisms.

Into this situation of volatile complexity a seed of enlightened and practical help was planted when American businessman and Christian Ken Vanderweele arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1992. Vanderweele's goal was to set up an Opportunity International economic initiative. He and his family settled in a community that was bleak by every definition. His children came home from school and told of the frozen corpses they'd seen in the street. Housing was inadequate. The state-owned economy under communism had collapsed. After decades of collectivism, private enterprise was regarded as "black market" at best and "criminal" at worst. The concept of self-employment was unknown. Venture capital was nonexistent, and loan seekers knew better than to apply for loans.

This was to be the first OI initiative in Eastern Europe. Vanderweele knew better than to begin by trying to impose Western concepts on these East European realities. Instead, he carefully selected five Bulgarians who agreed to join him in building a Bulgarian microenterprise, then established a board of directors that included the dean of the Sofia University business school as well as several local people with business experience.

These five pioneers, all serving without pay, began to work out a vision by putting together business know-how, a responsible management of U.S.-based funds and an understanding of financial procedures. The program that resulted is distinctive for its insistence on ethics in business practice and its grounding in a biblically informed, active Christian faith.

Among the first loan recipients was a Bulgarian woman whose husband had lost his soft-drink business after struggling for two years to assemble the capital needed to buy essential equipment. She needed $2,000 to take over the failed business, but no bank would accept her application. She had no collateral and no politically connected friends or family. But she fit the Opportunity International concept of possibility--she was someone who would succeed against great odds because of her determination and integrity. She received a loan and, like other OI loan recipients, her methods and motives were regularly monitored.

Her soft-drink business flourished. She paid off one loan and took out others. The business grew to 50 employees and six delivery trucks--a major expansion given the circumstances of Bulgaria in the early '90s. Later the woman joined the OI board of directors, and volunteered her time and experience as a thank-you to God for a program that transformed her life and helped her transform other lives.

Today 2,000 people benefit from both the OI loans and the support networks that meet twice a month. People meet to share their experiences of success and failure, to advise each other in technical training and financial know-how, and to spiritually uphold each other. Clients include both Muslims and Christians.

Opportunity International leaders see East Europe as part of the Third World. The average annual income in Bulgaria is $1,000; in Romania, $1,200; in Croatia, $3,000; and in Albania, $300. One would think the organization would be eagerly welcomed, but tensions arise when the Opportunity International vision collides with ethnic and religious biases. Some governments insist on preventing "the wrong people" from receiving help. For these governments, Opportunity International's conciliatory purpose threatens their efforts to dominate in longstanding hostilities.

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